When you picture the Greek islands, Santorini — a honeymooner’s and Instagrammer’s paradise — might be what comes to mind with its whitewashed hotels, villas, and restaurants perched on a cliff face overlooking the sea. It also has the reputation of being the most touristy of the Greek islands, so we figured that now, in the midst of the Covid-19 shutdown, would be a good time to visit. With no Americans or Chinese traveling this summer, we figured we’d get to see a side of the picturesque island that perhaps never to be available to tourists again.
We took a two-hour ferry from Crete to Santorini, our second island of our Greek island vacation. The ferry experience itself was pretty cool. No need to arrive super early, and you just walk right on the massive ferry, big enough that multiple semi-trucks can drive on. Also, we dropped our bags on the lower level, and walked upstairs where we had assigned, super comfy seats.
When we arrived to the port in Santorini for our three-night stay and we were quickly talked into renting a car, which proved to be unnecessary. But oh well, it wasn’t terribly expensive. We (well, Adam, as the car was a manual) drove on the beautiful, hilly roads up the island, past the town of Fira to the town of Oia where we were staying, which is the most shi-shi and picturesque town on the island. It’s got the gorgeous whitewashed houses carved into the cliff overlooking the Aegan sea-filled caldera (volcanic crater), and also lots of semi-private boutique hotels, high-end boutiques, and fine-dining restaurants. We checked into our romantic boutique hotel, La Perla Villas, a multi-level, multi-building hotel with each room rather cave-like and overlooking the deep blue sea. We had a Jacuzzi outside our door and the hotel’s pool was a few steps away, and man did it have spectacular views. I’m not really much of a vacation lounger, but Adam can be and was immediately excited about the prospect of cracking open some beers and reading some books ensconced in the total luxury that is staying in a romantic villa in Santorini.
We had our first Santorini lunch on the peaceful rooftop of Melitini restaurant. When I travel, I seem to have a constant craving for a crisp green salad, and the salad at Melitini really, really satisfied. So did the tzatziki and ice cold beer.
Dinner at Pelakanos was even better. Mushrooms are one of my favorite foods (and they’re outrageously expensive in Algeria) so I really enjoyed a mushroom and squash dish. And watching the sunset during our meal was magic.
Our favorite day in Santorini, and probably my favorite day of the entire trip, was going on a catamaran cruise in Aegean sea. When we checked in to our hotel, the woman at the front desk asked “Should I sign you up for a five-hour cruise where you swim in clear blue waters and drink wine and eat dinner and watch the sunset?” No brainer. I didn’t find the tall ship in Crete very comfortable with it’s constant lilting and rolling, but a catamaran is where it’s at. Super stable, and just a lovely smooth cruise.There were maybe twelve of us tourists on the boat, which had a three-person crew. We leapt in to the clear water and had a blast swimming. One stop had us doggy paddling throught rust-tinted waters fed by a hot sulfur spring next to a little “village” with a population of one. We ate a dinner of grilled shrimp, tzatziki and salad, and sipped white wine from tiny cups, watching the sun go down before we headed back to shore. Again: Magic.
By this point of the trip, I was really craving talking to someone new, after months and months of talking to only Adam on a daily basis. But for whatever reason, a week into the Greek trip and we’d hardly spoken to another person except for hotel staff. You know the whole thing about loud American tourists? Well, it might just be true, but I was actually really missing having other loud Americans around us on vacation. The other couples staying at our adults-only resort in Santorini were quiet as church mice. Us loud Americans tried to strike up some pool conversations and none of them went very well. The night before the boat trip, during our lovely sunset dinner at Pelakanos, I asked a mom and daughter at the table next to us if they wanted me to take their picture and this led to a long conversation about the fabulous mother-daughter trips they’ve been on and how the Australian mother fell in love with Holland and moved there 30 years ago. The next day on the catamaran cruise, there was Dutch dad with his three teenage/early 20s kids and we had a great time talking to that family for much of the boat ride. This confirmed something I already knew: The Dutch are as friendly and chatty as Americans.
On our final full day in Santorini, we took a wonderful hike from Oia to the other big town, Fira (thus further making our car rental feel pointless and prompting one of several long lectures from Adam about the economic principle of “sunk costs”). We first went past stunning seaview hotels and homes, a number of which were abandoned, pointing to the struggles of Santorini during this pandemic. Most of the hike was on a rocky mountain ledge where we could see the caldera sea views on one side, and the sea views from the other flat and windswept side of the island. We were also pretty much the only ones on this three-hour walk.
And my favorite hike, as you many know by now, is one that ends with an ice cold beer (I never write or say “beer.” It’s an “ice cold beer” or it’s nothing.) We ended our hike at the cute and bustling town of Fira and went straight to Argo restaurant, which hit all the spots. Ice cold beer? Check. Shrimp saganaki? Check. A crisp and refreshing salad? Check. After lunch, we walked to a deserted taxi stand and waited for quite some time for a cab to take us back to our hotel. One finally came and the cabbie told us during normal times, that taxi stand is crowded with people and cabs, but this year tourism is down 75% from a normal year.
Among folks who island-hop in Greece, Santorini has a bad rep. People on message boards are like “Stay away! It’s an overpriced Disneyfied tourist trap. Pick a different island!” Some people on our next island stop – chilled out Naxos – scoffed when they heard we’d come from Santorini. I suppose during a normal summer, Santorini’s charm might be diminished if one has to walk shoulder-to-shoulder with tourists and wait their turn to take a picture at one of the many stunning views. (And there were still times we were shoulder-to-shoulder with people, like one night walking around before dinner). But often the cute little streets and shops were fairly empty. Actually, a little too empty.
The final night of our trip was another dinner during sunset at a rooftop restaurant. Santorini isn’t a party island – for that you want Ios or Mykonos – so the nighttime activity seemed to be mostly watching sunsets. Either at one of the island’s many rooftop restaurants, or from a seaside perch at the edge of the island.
While Santorini wasn’t our favorite island on the trip, I totally get why people from all over the world have it on their bucket lists. I would highly recommend Santorini as a vacation spot for people who want some luxury and appreciate a place where everything looks perfect. It’s a romantic, pristine island with really good food, shops, and dramatic views, and nice water (although this isn’t the spot for beautiful sandy beaches). Also: You’d really have to try hard to take a bad picture of Santorini.